We Are STILL Playing a Game

I recently wrote a blog entry in response to Caroline Bender‘s question about the Scrabble game we were playing online.  Since we have different motivations for playing Scrabble, Ms. Bender asked whether we were actually playing a “game.”  My short response: yes.  After reading that response, Scott commented about the difference for him between playing Go and Scrabble on FaceBook.  He observed that Go is a more interesting game for him and he tried to explain why.  His reasons were: 1. He plays LOTS of Scrabble and so it has become less exciting for him. 2. Scrabble on FaceBook has a built-in dictionary and doesn’t allow you to play a word that is not in the dictionary so the game is less about vocabulary and more about the strategy of how to place words for maximum score and blocking his opponent’s potential moves. 3. Scrabble has an element of luck while Go is all about skill which means that in Scrabble, luck can sometimes overcome superior strategy and skill. 4. Go allows for deception. 5. Each move in Go is very clearly part of a larger battle so each move has both short-term and long-term consequences which makes it feel like every move has high stakes attached to it. 6. Finally, Go has a long history with significant implications in East Asian philosophy, society and politics so that when he plays Go, he recognizes that it is more than “just” a board game.  He then goes on to ask how these elements fit into Costikyan‘s six elements that every game must have.  In particular, Scott wants to know whether the historical and cultural context of a game important.  He makes some interesting points and asks a very good question.

Before I discuss Go and Scrabble in particular, I need to explain a bit about Costikyan’s article that may not have been clear in my previous blog entries where I’ve used his framework to analyze a game.  Costikyan wrote his article for game designers.  That is, he intended his framework as a tool for game designers to use when they have created a game that is pretty good (or maybe even pretty bad) and they want to figure out how to make the game great.  And so he spends a lot of time in the article discussing the importance of decision-making and how that relates to management of resources and the type of information given to the player.  For example, in Go, the player has perfect information which means that there is no information hidden from the player.  The player doesn’t have to worry about chance or any hidden resources that her opponent might have.  In contrast, a Scrabble player has imperfect information which, in this case, means that some information about the game state is known to the player while other information is hidden from the player.  In particular, the letters that the opponent has is hidden from the player.  In addition, there is the element of chance in Scrabble coming from the random draw of letters.  If a player happens to get all vowels or all consonants, for example, it may be quite difficult for the player to make any word so she may need to trade in her tiles which amounts to skipping an opportunity for scoring points.  The different information structures in the two games significantly affects the kind of decision-making in the game.  In Go, the better player will always win (unless she makes a stupid mistake) because there is no element of chance and no hidden information.  Chance and hidden information gives the inferior Scrabble player more of a chance to win.  I believe this is part of the reason that Scott prefers Go to Scrabble.

There is a large section of Costikyan’s article that I rarely talk about in these blog posts but which we discuss in detail in my classes.  After specifying the six elements that every game MUST have, Costikyan discusses many more elements that a game may or may not have.  In this section of the article, he is writing to the game designer who has created a good game that needs something extra to make it great.  Interestingly, one of the things that Costikyan suggests the game designer consider adding is more chance.  It’s one of the suggestions that is problematic in using this article with beginning game designers–their games often have too much chance so that the decisions the player makes do not feel significant or meaningful to the player.  Adding more chance to such a game makes the game worse, not better.  Another thing that Costikyan suggests the game designer pay attention to in order to make her game great is narrative tension.  I think this is what Scott is talking about when he says that in Go, he feels like there are mini-battles that make a difference in the larger war that is the game.  Every single move matters in this situation.  No single move can work alone to capture the opponent’s stones.  This idea of narrative tension is why Scott and I each sometimes just want to throw in the towel on a game of Go.  We both know who has won the game and so there is no more narrative tension.  We sometimes continue to play, however, because the mini-battles can themselves be interesting and allow for a sense of tension.  When I’m losing a game, I get great satisfaction from playing and winning one of these mini-battles, even when it won’t make a difference in the larger outcome of the game.  Ultimately, I think Scott understands his game-playing preferences pretty well and he’s done a great job analyzing why he prefers Go over Scrabble.

I find his final question really interesting.  He asks about the tradition of Go, wondering what Costikyan would say about this sense that game is more than “just” a game, that it is an expression of a larger, mystical tradition.  I don’t think Costikyan really has much to say about this particular topic.  But I recently took Ann‘s Postcolonial Literature course and I think a lot of what we read in that class relates to Scott’s comments about the mysticism of Go.  Go really is an ancient game–Wikipedia tells us that the game is more than 2000 years old.  But the sense of mysticism that we in the West associate with the East and with artifacts of the East (like Go) stem from Orientalism, a set of assumptions that stereotype the East in way that Edward Said finds damaging because those stereotypes allow us to think of Asians as “other.”  That is, these stereotypes allow us to think of Asians as somehow fundamentally different than us, the white, Western majority.  As a comparison, we can think of Chess, a game that is nearly as old as Go.  We in the West don’t ascribe the same kind of mysticism to Chess as we do to Go.  Both games are ancient games of perfect information that require significant study and play to master.  But Go is viewed with a sense of awe that is rarely present when Chess is discussed.

This discussion of the history and tradition does, however, make me think of something that is important for game designers to understand.  A game designer can never control what a player brings to the game.  In other words, if a particular game taps into some aspect of player psychology that is completely external to the game itself, the game may or may not be successful on that basis alone.  This particular aspect is completely outside of the game designer’s control.  I think remembering this probably will help a game designer not take the reception of her game too personally.  And it helps us understand that, like many things, there is some “je ne sais quoi” in the art of game design, that helps to keep it perpetually interesting.

2 Comments

  1. Great. So now I’m an “orientalist”… and an “otherist.” 🙂

    I would only add that — unlike Scrabble, or even Chess — Go has a formal system to correct for an imbalance between the skill of two players. The handicap system *theoretically* allows a novice player can to play a relatively matched game against a master. I think this is another way that tension is heightened in the game. Granted, if I’m playing Cathie in chess, she can simply remove her bishops to handicap the game, but (as far as I’m aware) that is not a formal part of the game…

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